Ever notice these camera-looking things on the back of police cruisers? I figured they were just radar guns. Actually they are a car-mounted version of an increasingly-ubiquitous Big Brother technology first developed by the Brits in 1976, automatic license plate readers. So these cameras collect license plate numbers in huge volumes and stack that information in a database (possibly databases shared between states and the feds) for the general purpose of mass surveillance which carries benefits to police, for example, the most innocent I can come up with, affirming alibis.

The model I’m looking at boasts being able to capture 5000 plates per minute of cars traveling over 200mph, “ensuring better readability in bad weather, with dirty or obstructed plates, with difficult angles and across three lanes in mobile applications.” Impressive piece of equipment to combat every police officer’s worst nightmare, 5000 cars whizzing by at 200mph in a single minute. I’d spill my coffee.

the-man_mobile-unit

While these systems may indeed help fight crime, these systems are extraordinarily expensive and an example of wild spending you might have no idea your country, county, city and state is engaging in whenever some salesman strolls into the precinct. It’s hard to find out how much things like parking meters, traffic lights and fancy license plate scanners go for, the venders’ and resellers’ websites tend not to publish the dollar figures. Perhaps because cities, counties and police departments aren’t that interested in the price, but they are interested in keeping it quiet. Supermarket Sweep it seems, even in the cities of direst straits. But I managed to find a few price quotes from Genetec resellers, the company that makes the systems Mississippi police use (among many others, though I want to single out Mississippi), and I have the gist:

Here’s a fairly detailed bid to the city of Hoboken, NJ, dated August 22nd 2013 (the most recent I could find), for what appears to be a basic system and set of cameras for only two cruisers, a couple laptops and some warranties. The summary at the end reads  as follows:

TOTAL COST OF THE (2) LPR’S [license plate readers] WITH THE 4 YR. EXTENDED WARRANTY & 4 YR. EXTENDED SMA AND THE (2) DATALUX COMPUTERS WITH THE 5 WARRANTY IS $141,120.00.

Again, two cars. If $141K feels a bit expensive to you, note that the Jackson City police boasted that by “helping us recover all these outstanding fines, that system is paying for itself.” In other words they charge you a fortune but tell you to think of it as not just a crime fighting investment  but a financial one which will rake in revenue by shaking citizens down for minor infractions (also arguably known as taxing people surreptitiously).

Here, some levity:

Jackson Mississippi is the city that pops up first if you google “police departments using AutoVu,” AutoVu being the Cadillac of these camera systems. I contend these cameras widen the socioeconomic divide and, when armed with the data such systems could provide, it could very well give the police more than enough reasonable suspicion to pull many more people over without even having to lie about drivers crossing the center line or an illegal lane change. Over time, as the datamining continues, the more powerful the police grow and the more impressive and probative crime-fighting data they have to offer the US Supreme Court someday.

New Hampshire, the live free or die state, banned these things. Kudos to them. That said, I don’t mind such mass surveillance or the notion that things will only head faster and faster in that direction over time, as long as it isn’t used to bust me for speeding. That’s where I draw the line.

Doug Simmons

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Biographical info.. hmm. I have a history of not being able to strike the balance between what is “safe” to put into these forms and what is, in my mind at least, funny. Can’t do it.

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